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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Shallow, smug, arrogant

This post, from August 2010, entitled "Shallow, smug, arrogant; pot, kettle, black", is my most popular ever, having received well over 12,000 views (alas, that is not at all typical for this blog - though it would obviously be a low number for some of the more famous bloggers on the Intertubes).

Given its popularity at the time, I thought I'd start 2011 (while it's still 1/1/11!!) by reprising it. You might want to go to the original and also have a look at the long comment thread.

A lot of it does actually seem worth repeating; indeed, despite the fact that it replied to a shallow piece in The Washington Times (which, as was pointed out to me, is not a very reputable publication), it ended up saying, in one place, much of what I was emphasising throughout 2010. When you compare the nonsense purveyed by Suzanne Fields to a much larger audience, it might also provide a clue as to why I often seem to be grouchy when I'm writing here. There's a lot material Out There to be grouchy about if you're serious about the defence of freedom and reason.


Sometimes you have to answer back

The anti-atheist diatribe recently published by Suzanne Fields in The Washington Times is of such poor quality that it scarcely merits a response. Unfortunately, I can't allow every such meretricious piece to go unrebutted: there are so many of them that there's a significant cumulative impact if we let too many through without comment. At least now and then, it's worth taking the time to pick apart such a piece in some detail, if only to demonstrate just how intellectually empty it is.

Since Fields has mentioned my (and Udo Schuklenk's) edited anthology, 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, her article has been drawn to my attention, so she gets to be my target this time round. Fields' article is not merely intellectually empty, though it certainly is that: again and again it demonstrates the very arrogance that she accuses her opponents of.

Fields' article is bereft of even one worthwhile point, though it does offer up a few useless, platitudinous truths. Unfortunately, there's obviously a market for such pieces as long as they attack an easily-demonised group such as outspoken atheists.

The sub-editor strikes, and strikes again!

Let's start with the article's title: "The new dance on a pinhead." I'm going to give Fields a pass with this one. While it's a poor choice of title, having little to do with the article itself, it was probably the creation of a sub-editor. It implies that Fields is about to discuss a group of people who fundamentally agree with each other but waste their time in bizarre and arcane debates, remote from the issues that really matter. Nothing in the article actually accuses anyone of doing that, exactly, or argues that any such debate is currently going on. So the title is completely inappropriate, but I'll blame that on the sub-editor.

In all this, we can leave aside the fact that the medieval thought experiments about how many angels can dance on a pinhead (an actual infinity of angels or merely however large a number God wants?) were meant to illustrate matters of deep philosophical significance. The sub-editor is not alert to this, but not many people are. It's worth noting, but not worth getting fussed about.

What about the sub-heading? This says: "Arguments for atheism are the best endorsements for faith." Well, the article goes nowhere near establishing such a thing or even saying anything at all cogent that could be interpreted that way. It's a misleading sub-heading, but again I blame the sub-editor rather than Fields herself.

First para: what is Fields talking about?

But we must blame Fields for the first paragraph. This is so all-of-over the place that it's difficult even to see what she is getting at. You look at each of the sentences in the para and they simply don't follow from each other in a logical sequence. This is poor writing.

Somewhere there, however, she seems to be saying that atheism has become a fashionable topic in political circles or perhaps simply in the city, Washington, D.C., where the article is being published. Either way, that is doubtful - how many Washington dinner parties, I wonder, really turn to discussions of Richard Dawkins and the "New Atheism". In any event, Fields tells us that this fashion has appeared on the scene because of efforts by atheist intellectuals who are interested in taking on the long-dead medieval monks who engaged in esoteric theological debates.

But that is just wrong. Sure, some atheists may make fun of medieval monks - even in some of the essays in 50 Voices of Disbelief you'll probably find some of this. But it's wildly misleading to suggest that contemporary outspoken atheism is about taking on obscurantist theologians, past or present. If anything, it is about taking on creationists, violent fanatics (more of this later), and narrow-minded moralists and evangelists whose notion of "sin" includes such things as abortion, stem-cell research, and homosexual conduct. By and large, outspoken atheists are interested in reducing the social footprint of religion, and especially a certain kind of conservative, politicised religion. Some outspoken atheists think that even liberal religion is playing a negative role, but others are happy to ally with genuinely liberal religious people. And there's quite a spectrum of atheist opinion on this. None of us are greatly concerned about medieval monks. We have fresher fish to fry.

The Bible outsells Richard Dawkins. So?

So far, as of the end of the first para, Fields has not said anything that has any merit. What about the second para? This actually says something true: the Bible massively outsells books like 50 Voices of Disbelief or even Dawkins' The God Delusion. Of course, no one on my side of the argument has ever disputed this, and nothing interesting is made of this well-known fact, at least not in paragraph two. So I'll give the benefit to Fields of having stated something that is true but so obvious as to have no intellectual merit in itself. Will she build on this platitude in her third paragraph? Let's investigate ...

Conformity and Lucretius

Aas, no. The third paragraph changes the subject completely and sneers at atheists for imagining they are non-conformists even though atheism has (supposedly) been around for a long time. Fields quotes some anti-religious words from Lucretius, the great Epicurean poet and philosopher of ancient Rome, to make her point. But paragraph three is wrong at so many levels thats it's hard to know where to start in dismantling it. Note, fellow atheists, that it's an attack on our character, not our arguments. We think of ourselves as non-conformists, Fields says, "but" we can't be because there is a long history of disbelief going back to Lucretius. So instead of addressing our arguments against religions of various kinds, Fields sees fit to attack us as people: as people who falsely imagine we are non-conformists, as people who fool ourselves. But that's hardly playing fair. That's an unfair, arrogant, sneering style of debate.

So much for issues of tone, but what of substance? I think there's merit in discussing the tone of the article, especially as she makes so much of it herself, but might she have something of substance to say, visible through all the sneering? No.

The trouble is that even if we were motivated by a sense of ourselves as non-conformists - which might show some element of vanity, I suppose - her argument that we actually are not what we imagine ourselves to be clearly fails. Even if atheism had a long history, it would not follow that it is currently popular. Conformity is about going along with the majority view that you see around you, not about going along with a view that happens to have a long historical pedigree. So even if Lucretius had been an atheist, this would not make the required point. It would show that there were atheists in classical antiquity, but it would not show that atheism is (or ever has been) popular. The article is not only poorly written; it's poorly argued. It's flagrantly illogical.

The fact is that atheism is a minority view right now in the English-speaking countries, taken overall, and especially in the United States where Fields' article is published. Probably even in Washington. So what the hell is she talking about? Let's be clear about this before moving on: even if Lucretius had been an atheist, it would prove nothing of any relevance - it would remain the fact that atheism really is a minority, or non-conforming, view in the US, where Fields has her primary audience.

And if it comes to that, Lucretius was probably not even an atheist! He was anti-religious, but that is not the same thing. If we take their writings at face value, the Epicureans did actually believe in the gods, who were portrayed as powerful, tranquil beings with no care for humanity. Again, even if the Epicureans such as Lucretrius can be interpreted as "really" atheists, merely giving some kind of lip-service to the existence of the gods for the sake of propriety, that is very much a matter of textual and historical exegesis, not something plain on the face of the Epicurean writings from which Fields quotes.

Note that the point made by Fields back in para 2 actually goes against her here: sales of the Bible dwarf sales of De Rerum Natura or any other Epicurean text, or any other text in the broadly Epicurean tradition.

So to take stock, Field managed to say something true in the second paragraph, but has then done nothing useful with it. By the end of paragraph three, the article is still intellectually empty. It's also showing an early touch of arrogance.

Those awful atheist intellectuals

I turn to paragraph four. Again note the sneering tone: Fields starts to say something about "atheist intellectuals" but can't resist adding "and those who only imagine they're intellectuals"; again, isn't Fields supposed to be on the side of the nice people? But again, this is nastyness we're seeing from her, this is arrogance, this contributes nothing to the debate. Notice that I'm not alleging that she has been arrogant somewhere else: her arrogance is right damn well there, plain on the face of the text.

And before anyone tells me that someone else has said worse while sounding off on a blog, let me remind you that this is not a blog post that we're looking at: it's an op.ed. piece in a reputable newspaper. It should aspire to a certain dignity. Apparently Fields thinks it's okay to write like this about your opponents in such a place. This is not charity, my friends. This is not fairness. It's mean-spirited. It's poisoning the well.

Is there anything of substance in the fourth paragraph? Some of it is about atheists mocking believers. Well, do they? I suppose some do. On the other hand, most of us are actually quite careful not to engage in empty mockery. Most of the mockery you'll see from atheists has a point. It's legitimate, for example, to highlight how a particular idea leads to absurdity or to show that a particular claim is ridiculous on its face. Mockery and ridicule have their place in our cultural and intellectual debates, and if Fields wanted to mock some particular statement by an atheist that was clearly ridiculous I couldn't complain. However that's exactly what she doesn't do - she never provides a single example of anything like that. I dare say there are examples Out There, but Fields doesn't provide them: she simply sneers at what atheists are supposedly like, as described by her.

Where atheists do the same to Christians, I'm not especially impressed, but it's important to point out that is not the typical approach in books by Dawkins, Dennett, and other high-profile atheists, or in the essays in 50 Voices of Disbelief. You wouldn't know it, reading Fields, but that is simply not what the high-profile "New Atheist" books are like. Fields attacks atheists for doing what she does herself - thereby providing us with examples of her own resort to empty, nasty mockery - but she never provides an example of her opponents doing such a thing. Again, I'm not saying it never happens, but it's astonishing to see how this plays out in the article.

Religious people do good things (well, some of them do)

The rest of paragraph four is, again, all over the place. Fields says that some religious people do good things. But hang on a minute: it doesn't follow either that religion is true or that religion brings about good results on balance. Plenty of evil has been inspired by religion. And yes, I know that plenty of evil has been inspired by other things, such as greed, desperation, political ideology, but that's not the point. No one says that religion is the source of all evil in the world. What we do say is that it's not beyond criticism and satire. Nothing in paragraph four amounts even to the beginning of a case against that proposition. Alas, some religious believers really are rubes, rascals, or rednecks, and it's worth pointing this out. Think of creationists, the surfeit of rascally televangelists, and the very large number of unpleasant homophobes who can be found in Fields' country. No amount of out-of-context quotation from Milton or Shakespeare can detract from the truth about that.

The botton line is that some religionist deserve all the mockery they get - I'm happy to mock the likes of Jimmy Swaggart or Ted Haggard - and some do not (you'll never see me mocking Shelby Spong, for example). Many religious ideas, such as contrived theodicies also deserve mockery. Some religious ideas may not. The fact that some religious people perform good works is neither here nor there. Oh, and some individual atheists may deserve mockery or the kind of sneering that Fields indulges in, but Fields gives no examples, let alone any convincing ones. She evidently feels that she can just sneer away regardless of the evidence.

Shallow, smug, arrogant

Ater all this, it's remarkable that she claims to find nothing but "smug, shallow and arrogant assertions" in all the atheist books she's read. This is, of course, nonsense. If she's read, for example, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, she'll know that it's actually full of facts and careful arguments. As for the essays in 50 Voices of Disbelief, since she mentions it, some are light and humorous, but I can't think of any that can fairly be described as containing nothing but "smug, shallow and arrogant assertions". I suggest strongly that Fields is factually wrong here, and that she writes absolutely nothing to back up her implausible generalisation about atheist writing. It also hasn't escaped me that the claim is itself smug, shallow, and rather arrogant. Fields seeks to smear and belittle her opponents, rather than to engage them.

She does go on, in paragraph five, to quote some smug, shallow, arrogant, breathtakingly condescending assertions from David B. Hart, but she does nothing to support them. She simply repeats them and, in effect, adopts them as her own. Even if you think Hart did a good hatchet job in the piece concerned, and had something in the way of an argument to support his extraordinary claims - I can't agree, but we'll set that aside - Fields offers precisely nothing in support. There's nothing of any intellectual value in paragraph five, and as I reach the end of this paragraph, arguably the key paragraph in the whole article, I can only wonder why such an empty piece was published. Well, let's go on.

"Atheists believe in nothing"

Actually, not quite yet. Paragraph five also contains one breathtaking claim, stuck gratuitously in the middle of nowhere. Fields writes: "Atheists by definition believe in nothing, and anyone would find it hard to make something of nothing." That is a nice smug bit of rhetoric, but what in the world does it actually mean? It is simply not the case that atheists "believe in nothing". We don't believe that any of the gods identified in human religions actually exist, but so what? If believing in nothing is meant to mean that atheists have no beliefs at all, that is just false. Like everyone else, any atheist comes with plenty of beliefs. For example, I believe that this planet is approximately 4.5 billion years old, that my species is descended from apelike creatures through a path of biological evolution, that I am currently sitting at my desk in front of my computer, that there will be a general election in Australia on 21 August 2010, that the pantry in my kitchen contains walnuts, and many, many other things. Of course atheists have beliefs. How else could it be?

But aha! Might it be said that we don't believe in anything, perhaps in the sense that we have no ideals or values? But that's also ludicrous. Obviously I am as well-stocked with ideals and values as anyone else. My values include such things as freedom and amelioration of suffering - and many other things that sound less high-falutin'. How dare Fields say we have no ideals or values, if that's what she means? That would be a false and extraordinarily arrogant claim.

But might she mean that our ideals and values are not entailed by our bare lack of belief in the existence of any gods? Now that claim might be true, but so what? No one has ever claimed that atheism itself, taken as a bare lack of belief in any gods, provides a complete philosophy. Neither, of course, does the bare belief in the existence of, say, Yahweh, or Zeus, or Astarte, or Vishnu, or Ra, or Sif, or any other deity. All of these beliefs are tied up in far more complex belief systems.

Atheists, of course, also have more complex belief systems, sometimes good ones that appear to contain much truth and to provide much that is socially beneficial - and sometimes not. The issue is not whether bare lack of belief in the existence of gods is sufficient for a full belief system - clearly it isn't. The real questions are about which belief systems are likely to be close to the truth, which systems might be socially beneficial, whether theism as we've known it historically, in the Abrahamic religions, is likely to be true, whether or not it has been beneficial, whether it is beneficial right now, and so on. All of these questions are worth debate, and atheists are as well-equipped to debate them as theists. You can't argue that atheists' contributions to such debates are worthless merely by sneering knowingly that "Atheists believe in nothing." Again, Fields' approach is not charitable, fair, intellectually reputable, or even civil.

Hitchens and Hitchens

All right, paragraph six at last. Here, Fields outdoes herself. She stoops to an even more despicable level, trying to make a point from Christopher Hitchens' current very serious illness - he is suffering from throat cancer that is likely to kill him. Once again, she doesn't seem to care much about the truth of what she's discussing. It's true, of course, that Hitchens has cancer, but not true at all that he's softened on religion as a result: see this interview, for example, and Jerry Coyne's transcription of some of it. And if that's not her point, what, exactly, is her point?

This brings me close to the end, where Fields has a bit to say about Peter Hitchens. I openly admit that I haven't read the book by Peter Hitchens that she refers to, so I'm prepared to assume that the factual claims she makes about it are true. But she offers nothing independent to support the banal and dubious points that Peter Hitchens apparently makes. The first is that there was something wrong with the social revolution of the 1960s. Secondly, Hitchens apparently thinks that outspoken atheists are hypocritical in being hard on Christianity and soft on Islam. Thirdly, we are told that "The concepts of sin, of conscience, of eternal life and divine justice under an unalterable law" are bulwarks against relativism and consequentialism, which produce great evil.

Note that Fields herself puts no argument whatsoever for any of these three controversial claims. She makes these claims as if they are self-evident and/or the authority of Peter Hitchens is enough. Well, Hitchens may put arguments for them, but no such argument appears in Fields' article - coming from her, these three claims are merely asserted in a rather smug, arrogant, shallow manner. But the claims are far from being self-evident, and the onus is on her to put evidence and argument as to why we should think any of them are true. She offers ... nothing.

In fact, though I don't accept any onus and can't put the full argument here, all three claims lack merit. The social revolution of the sixties had been building for decades, was long overdue, and was, on balance, beneficial. It doubtless caused problems, as all large-scale social change does, but it gave us new freedoms and ushered in a more compassionate society. By and large, we are now more tolerant of diversity than we were prior to the 1960s and we're less tolerant of suffering. None of us should want to go back to what existed before. The 1960s provided an important and largely valuable watershed in history.

The point made about Islam is uncharitable, largely false and entirely unfair. Of course those Western atheists who think religion should be criticised are likely to concentrate on the religion that exerts the most social influence around them and which they understand best, i.e. Christianity. There is nothing surprising or sinister about this. It doesn't show hypocrisy and or a double standard, merely a sense of local priorities and a rational division of labour. For exactly the same reason, it is perfectly understandable, and there's nothing sinister about it, when Turkish atheists concentrate more on Islam. In any event, as Islam gains in influence in the West more actually is being written about it by Western atheists. The violent fanaticism associated with various strains of political Islam constantly comes under attack from Western atheists (among others). There are numerous examples of this every day, e.g. over at Butterflies and Wheels, and again that is a natural step.

Fields doesn't even try to define what she means by relativism - this is an important and difficult issue in meta-ethics, but she shows no sign of even the slightest understanding. If she means the cruder kinds of moral relativism that say, for example, "Female genital mutilation is acceptable if it's practised in a culture where it's accepted", then fine. I don't approve of that kind of vulgar moral relativism. But there are far more sophisticated relativist theories than that.

Besides, when "relativism" is referred to in this way it is usually code for a utilitarian morality, or for something similar that measures the morality of conduct by its consequences, rather than against inflexible moral rules handed down over time. By and large, the acceptance of consequentialist moral ideas has been beneficial. I'm not suggesting that utilitarianism, or any other consequentialist system, provides the last word in normative ethics, but I do suggest that it's a step forward to stop asking, "Will action X breach a moral rule that we've inherited" and to start asking such things as "Will action X cause suffering?" "Might action X even ameliorate suffering to some extent?" Whatever the faults of current Western society, we have advanced insofar as we actually care about the suffering in the world rather than about archaic concepts such as "sin" or an immutable, supposedly God-given moral law.


I apologise if I've wasted your time by writing such a long blog post on such an undeserving topic. However, as I said at the beginning, sometimes it's necessary to respond at length in order to show in detail just how bad some of these anti-atheist articles are.

The piece by Fields is badly written and poorly argued; it is as smug, shallow, and arrogant as anything ever written by any so-called "New Atheist" known to humankind. All in all this piece is a worthless contribution to current debates about God and religion. I'd like to ignore it, but we do have to grapple with these sorts of pieces from time to time.


ennui said...

Well worth the read, thanks.

Monado, FCD said...

Few casual statements are more annoying than "Atheists believe in nothing." It's manifestly not true, as I believe in life, love, friends, honesty, work, expertise, nature, physics, astronomy, gardens.... It's just that I don't organize my life around mooning over the absence of leprechauns, the Eoaster bunny (symbol of yeasty fertility), and the Tooth Fairy, the way some self-centred fairy worshippers think I should.